On 2001: A Space Odyssey

In Season 5, Episode 10 of South Park, titled “How to Eat with Your Butt,” Kenny McCormick stands on his head and puts his bare ass in the face hole of his jacket for his school picture. His friend, Eric Cartman, sends this picture to a milk company to be posted as the photo of a missing child on its milk cartons. Believing it a photograph of their own missing son, a married couple from Wisconsin visits the boys in South Park. Sure enough, when Cartman opens the front door, the two parents both have butts for faces. Instead of breaking out into laughter, however, as we fully expect Cartman to do, his face turns blank. Having seen what he understands to be the absolute funniest thing ever to possibly happen, he retreats into a depression where nothing at all can make him laugh anymore.

As is the case with most South Park episodes, there is a reality to be found here. Notwithstanding the fact that this episode was released in 2001, on November 14th, 2014, the day for which I’m writing this paper, I recall “How to Eat with Your Butt” because it applies to an experience I had only a few days ago. Specifically, I went to a 10:15 p.m. showing of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in 70 millimeter IMAX, on a screen the size of a small apartment building, at my hometown movie theater. Aside from the partly pretentious and skeptical starting point from which I enter yet another overly-hyped Nolan blockbuster, all of the pieces were in place for a real zinger of a Monday night out. With Bunch’a Crunch in one hand, popcorn in the other, and a water bottle in the cup holder, I shouted a countdown from ten alongside the hundreds of other patrons in the sold-out theater, a novel experience only conceived because the film reel is too large to fit any trailers (there has to be some way, after all, to indicate the beginning of the film).

I can always tell when I’ve seen a great film for the first time—when the closing creditsfirst appear on screen I get Goosebumps. Strangely, when Christopher Nolan’s name appeared on screen on Monday, I didn’t feel much of anything. Cursed with the instinct to evaluate a film even in the process of watching it for the first time, I had anticipated the Goosebumps even before the film ended. In light of Pauline Kael’s sentiment that one’s own lack of reaction to a film is more likely the film’s fault than one’s own, I got to thinking. I thought I loved the movie, so why the underwhelming feeling? Was it the mediocre writing? The familiar plot developments? The shallow secondary characters? Despite recognizing all of these shortcomings, I didn’t feel like they were truly causing my less-than-full-blown reaction. In the days since I have come up with a theory (albeit a potentially useless and incorrect one).

If Sheryl Crow has taught me anything over the loudspeakers in innumerable Tri-State supermarkets, it’s that “the first cut is the deepest.” A similar principle has proven much to the chagrin of drug addicts everywhere, who inevitably experience lesser and lesser highs after the first smoke, snort, or needle. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey was my first cut, my first hit. And, as things often tend to be, it was indeed the deepest, the highest. Lying on a cheap sofa in the hot living room of my best friend’s home in Jamaica, Queens, at 6:30 in the morning of an all-nighter, I watched 2001 silently. I must have been breathing during those final 30 minutes of the film, but I couldn’t tell you for certain.

The opening credits went up along with the sun that morning—fitting in that, like a dream, I had been essentially encapsulated in the world of that film for half an hour. Only now did I remember that I am an existing human in a world that exists outside of that screen. A feeling that lies somewhere between engrossing and religious has graced me but once since those 30 minutes, during a seven-minute-long sequence of shots of the paintings in the Chauvet Caves of Southern France in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. My friend, who I now remembered is an existing entity in the sober world I inhabit, had enjoyed but felt less strongly about the film than I had. We got up, took a 20-minute walk around town, he smoked a cigarette, and I managed to fall asleep an hour later.

Following Interstellar, I felt empathy for Eric Cartman. It isn’t that the film isn’t worthy of Goosebumps, but I had already seen the greatest. Stanley Kubrick took my virginity. The second high could not measure up. At age 17, during a very transformative period in my life, I had had a thoroughly perfect movie experience. On the night following my 19th birthday, Interstellar could have had fantastic writing and characterization and it wouldn’t have made a huge difference. It isn’t that 2001 ruined the fun of Interstellar, just that it stymied the magic of it.

The true beauty of 2001 lies in territory that a popular blockbuster can’t touch. Namely, where the Nolan brothers must explain themselves, where they must hit on dramatic plot elements to keep their audience engaged, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke feel no such pressure. Only with the full creative freedom Kubrick had, checked only by a short leash held by a money-wise executive producer, could he have produced a film of such brazen balls. With a screenplay that must not amount to more than forty pages for a 160=minute picture, not to mention no dialogue whatsoever during the beginning and final 30 minutes, there is no conventional story arc.

2001 is like a science lesson, not only in that it is long and boring. Regardless of the actual science used—the zero-gravity writing utensils and lavatories of which serve mostly as comic novelties—the ideas driving the film come on such a grand scale that it prods one to reconsider the greatness of things in general. It touches upon the same nerve in me that flares up during a great physics lecture, the ones that make me think about the grand scope of the universe and our insignificant place within it. From the bottom up, apes to astronauts, 2001 digs deeper into the essence of humanity than any character study can. Precisely in its lack of concern for character does it afford the space to portray the more complicated truths of human existence—namely, what a human essentially is, and where our limitations lie.

The characters in 2001 are barely characters at all. A video call between an astronaut and his daughter seems more a means for displaying futuristic technology (futuristic for the standard of 1968, when the movie was released) than a humanizing interaction. Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood display stoicism the likes of which HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence guiding their mission, can’t even match with its monotone voice. Kubrick, in opposition to basically every film ever, does everything possible to portray the humans in his film as little more than empty shells. It’s almost incomprehensible to make out two conversations occurring at the same time (mixed to approximately the same volume) on the main floor of the space station. A conference room is shot exclusively in wide angles, showing the backs of heads or at enough of a distance where faces mostly cannot be seen. It says something about a work of fiction when, among all of the characters, the robot has the most personality. Where characterization is concerned, I should think Kubrick does everything short of pissing on a screenwriting textbook or burning down a film school.

And what of the alien presence? There’s a black-hole-like monolith, but no actors appear in green makeup, nor possessing any artificial limbs. I like to think that human element is void in 2001 because the film is shot from the alien perspective. We can jump cut from prehistoric apes to 2001 astronauts because we are not bound by time as the film’s subjects are. Spacecraft that look like toys glide along to waltz music, as if the scenes were choreographed for our relaxed enjoyment. (The exclusively classical music soundtrack only further exhibits Kubrick’s honey-badger-don’t-care approach to filmmaking.) When Keir Dullea looks into the eyes of the alien presence, he looks into the lens of the camera. Without giving away any vital spoilers, he appears to us in those final minutes in a setting not unlike a cage, and we watch him as he attempts to understand the indescribable presence controlling him. Like a pet fish, he moves slowly and looks around, eyes wide open, with no shred of understanding as to the condition he has been placed in. He survives madness only through visualizing what appears to be a familiar setting, and occupies pod-like structures not unlike fishbowls both at the beginning and end of the sequence.

What this all boils down to is the fact that 2001 is too big to concern itself with the petty squabbles of man. (Yes, I realize that Pauline Kael is rolling over in her grave right now.) It’s so big, in fact, that it literally hits the ceiling of human understanding. Through some pseudo-magic feat of directorial finesse, Kubrick conveys a presence only defined insofar as it confounds the capacity for the insufficient human mind to comprehend it. If there is any credence to the notion that an author can create a character or world that exists in its own right, Kubrick has concocted a Frankenstein presence that one cannot explain in words without destroying its essence entirely.

If spirituality may be defined as the submission of oneself to a higher power, then 2001: a Space Odyssey is a sort of spiritual film. It is not an immediately entertaining film. In fact, watching it today, most of my enjoyment results from remembering all of the great stuff Kubrick does—I don’t particularly move with the story anymore. Just as that first viewing was the sex-on-meth of cinematic experiences, a subsequent viewing simply cannot be the same. I regret, even, that someone reading this may not have seen the film yet. I had anticipated something along the lines of Star Wars going into my first viewing, which was part of the reason why it was able to surprise me so greatly.

Much of the appeal of 2001 is rooted in how wholly different it is in comparison to every other film. I feel more uncomfortable referring to it as a “movie” than as a “film.” In the connotative sense, where Jaws is a movie, and The Shining is a movie, 2001 is a film. Taken at its most basic 2001 is the Jesus Christ spawn of student film culture—a faction dedicated to half-baked philosophy and emotional contrivance over story, giving rise to aspiring filmmakers who condemn Hollywood cliché but all-too-transparently imitate the same few filmmakers who fulfill the requirements of being critically acclaimed but maintain enough of an art house image remain obscure to one’s less film educated peers (Woody Allen and David Lynch for the novices, Eisenstein and Visconti for the truly repugnant among us). 2001 has more grand ideas than narrative elements, and one gets the sense that Kubrick sails a thin channel between exposing his artistic motivations (definitely the rock) and creating something entirely incomprehensible (the hard place). In my alien encounter, when the four-eyed, green lizard monster asks me what a movie is, I’ll hand him a DVD copy of Jaws or Love, Actually. If, on the other hand, my ten-foot, eight-legged alien friend wishes to experience the peaks of humanity’s artistic achievements, I’d hand him a gift basket with a copy of 2001 alongside Velazquez’s Las Meninas and Beethoven’s 9th in D minor (among other things).

To this point, I find it entirely awkward to compare 2001 to the other greatest films of all time. Even in all of their diversity, and in their great, unique achievements, 2001 nonetheless stands out as the sore thumb—it is not a great film in the sense that The Godfather is. Having myself seen both Citizen Kane and Vertigo, it seems to me much more apt to vote 2001 atop the list or far down below (if only the release date of Radiohead’s Kid A had been delayed three months—the comparison is perfect). As ridiculous as it sounds, comparing the merits of The Bicycle Thief to Taxi Driver seems a bit more natural to me than comparing 2001 to just about anything. I respect, and will not even entirely disagree with someone who argues that it is not a great film. Far better that than someone claiming it to be the seventh greatest movie of all time (for what would make it better and worse than the films directly before and after it?). I should think that the only way to truly determine whether 2001 is the greatest film of all time is to pit a honey badger in a cage battle with a komodo dragon on behalf of Tokyo Story, a raccoon for Birth of a Nation, a snake for Citizen Kane, a hyena for Battleship Potemkin, and a scorpion for Vertigo.

I screened 2001: a Space Odyssey for my school club last May, and, having myself not seen it since then, anticipate doing so again towards the end of this school year. Among sleeping, frequent iPhone checking, and window-gazing, I heard one of my friends laughing during the final act of the film. A bit harsh, but I anticipated a negative reaction. I don’t fault anyone for not liking 2001—it isn’t for everyone, even most. In the end, one gets the sense that Stanley Kubrick didn’t make it for your enjoyment. Only the HAL storyline is conventional enough for the above-average viewer to hold on to, but anybody who cites HAL’s part as the reason for liking the film is clearly missing the point. I find it difficult to describe the true greatness of the film because it manifests itself in aura rather than in memorable quotes or dramatic plot twists. I suppose the clearest conclusion I can muster for 2001 is that, presently in 2014, no other film in history has successfully achieved such great heights.

With the understanding that 2001 contains a number of magnificent camera shots, one in particular comes to mind as I consider the essence of its beauty. Without giving too much away, this frame appears in the dying minutes of the film. From behind the head of a near-death man frozen in bed, we and he stare in awe at a perfectly haunting monolith standing dead center in an otherwise familiar-looking setting. The shot is the anti-Lamentation of Christ (Mantegna), and our Jesus figure, all but dead as he lays frail in bed, reaches out a hand towards that hulking polygon. We can feel an alien presence—it’s a window into the world of a universal God-thing, which cannot be seen through because no light, no matter, can escape its surface. When I first encountered Mantegna’s Renaissance work, it felt as if I, the viewer, were part of the scene, occupying the space alongside others grieving Jesus’ death by his bedside. I saw Lamentation before I saw 2001. Revisiting this painting, I imagine that if the artist had painted from behind Christ’s head, we’d see a room and, in the very middle of it, a beautiful black monolith.